Iverson faces whole new ballgame playing in Turkey

Cheering supporters greet Allen Iverson as he is escorted from the Ataturk airport in Istanbul, Turkey.
Cheering supporters greet Allen Iverson as he is escorted from the Ataturk airport in Istanbul, Turkey.
Posted: November 09, 2010

THE ANTICIPATION in Istanbul has been immense. Allen Iverson is coming. The news has been swirling for weeks. It does not seem to matter that Iverson is 35, that his best days are behind him, that he struggled last season in three games with the Memphis Grizzlies and 25 with the 76ers. All that matters is, Allen Iverson is coming. In true Iverson fashion, he was supposed to be there Saturday, to be greeted by throngs of people, to sign autographs, to be introduced to his new teammates with Besiktas. But he missed his flight, supposedly because he arrived at the airport without his passport. (Where, oh where, have we heard something like that before?)

He is holding a 2-year contract worth $4 million, but the celebration was delayed until yesterday, when he was surrounded (mobbed?) by dozens of photographers and media members at Ataturk Airport, with giddy fans singing what seemed to be fight songs. He wore a jersey from his new team - with the No. 4 because European basketball rules forbid anything lower - and a red Phillies cap, and put on his flashy earrings once he cleared security. In various photos and video clips, he seemed almost dazed.

The welcome party will continue today with a light and music show, the team said.

"They were great. That is the most important thing to be accepted and wanted and appreciated," Iverson told reporters upon his arrival. "It was a good feeling to see them come and support me. That's exciting me more and more to get done what I want to get done and that is winning basketball games.

"They obviously have seen a little bit of me playing in the NBA, but they get a chance to see a lot more of me . . . I'm going to be around my teammates a lot and I'll interact with the fans as much as possible. I bet before I leave here I'm going to speak Turkish."

None of his controversial history seems to matter to the fans in Istanbul. Emre Erkul, a native of Turkey who has been in the United States about 12 years and has been the director of marketing for the Borgata in Atlantic City for nearly 8 years, said the first reaction to the news that the four-time NBA scoring champion and former MVP was coming "was as if Billy Joel or U2 were coming for a concert. People were like, 'Oh, my God.' "

Erkul went to graduate school at La Salle University and was recently home, visiting family. The news of Iverson's imminent arrival was huge.

"His is a global name, like Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Kobe Bryant," Erkul said. "Turkey is a country of 75 million people; Istanbul, at about 15 million, is the largest city. Bringing a name like Iverson is huge; there are a lot of expectations at this point. Initially, this was a big surprise, because people didn't believe it."

According to reports, Iverson could make his debut as soon as Saturday at Oyak Renault. Besiktas then has home games Nov. 16 vs. KK Hemofarm Stada and Nov. 20 vs. Fenerbahce Ulker, whose roster includes former Temple star Lynn Greer.

Erkul said he had read newspaper reports that Iverson felt he needed "to be exempt from penalties [fines], or to have them at a fixed amount. I didn't see anything that said management would accept that request."

"According to reports in the papers there, management wants to fill the arena, and if there's an overflow, to set up screens outside," Erkul said. "When I was home, people were ordering jerseys; they don't think of him as being old, they think of him as an interesting personality."

Wait, though, until Iverson gets a load of the Europeans' version of practice.

"In the NBA, they like you to rest your legs the day before games, but over there they truly believe that if they run you, you'll be in better shape," said ex-Sixer Marc Jackson, the onetime Roman Catholic High and Temple star who played in Turkey before entering the NBA in the late 1990s after being a second-round draft choice of the Golden State Warriors. "Since they generally play one game a week, sometimes they have two-a-days; sometimes they go 3 hours the day before a game. I'm hoping Allen has changed a little in terms of accepting coaches.

"What I learned was, over there if you win the team did a good job. If you lose, either the coach didn't work you hard enough or the Americans didn't play well enough, whether they scored 10 or 35. If you average 20 points, the coach isn't happy; they want everyone scoring 10-12-14. I reached out to Allen through [agent] Leon Rose, but I didn't hear back."

Jackson, now part of Comcast SportsNet pregame and postgame analysis of Sixers telecasts, also said the makeup of the locker room is different.

"It's like the Turkish players on one side, the players from other countries on another side, the Americans on another side," he said. "There's a lot of divide and conquer. Allen's a great dude, but I don't know if he has many friends who played over there."

The only other American on the Besiktas roster is Mire Chatman, a guard in his third season with the team who played collegiately at Texas-Pan American. Other than center A.J. Ogilvy, from Australia, the remainder of the roster is players from Turkey, Russia and Eastern Europe.

Still, as far as being cosmopolitan, Jackson said Istanbul "was a beautiful place, like living in New York. Everyone speaks English."

Iverson's name and fame can only help, said Utah Jazz big man Mehmet Okur, a native of Turkey.

"He definitely is the biggest NBA player who is going to play, and it's good for Turkish basketball and also good for the [other] club teams because I think they're going to have to step up right now, [to] bring more good players," Okur said. "So I think everybody is excited over there."

Okur said he thinks the fans in his home country will respect Iverson, "on the floor, off the floor, and treat him like a superstar. And hopefully, he's going to play good and try to help Turkish basketball, make it better. We'll see what happens."

As the home fires burn, though, there are already cautionary tales.

"The basketball culture there is a whole other deal," Joe Crispin, the former Penn State star from Pitman, N.J., said on the phone from Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto in Italy, where he is currently playing. "Euroball is so different; it's almost college-like, but it's your job. Practice is also a whole other deal, and the game is more physical among the good teams. Even among the bottom teams, it's intense. They play 30 games; the mentality is much different."

Crispin, who logged some time in the NBA, played nearly two seasons in Turkey; former Temple star Dionte Christmas is currently playing for a team there.

"The expectations [for Iverson] will be really different," Crispin said. "To be an American is difficult as it is, but I'm not a former MVP or scoring champ. If he doesn't live up to those expectations, it won't be pretty. He could be home in six games. Teams can be capricious and overcontrolling; there's no players union. Things could go really well or really poorly for him."

Iverson's team (1-1 this season) plays in the Turkish league, not in the Euroleague, considered the best league in Europe. Only two teams from Turkey play in the Euroleague.

Besiktas hasn't won the Turkish league since 1975, although its management obviously expects that to change.

"The only aim of Besiktas, with Allen Iverson, is definitely the championship in Turkey and in Europe," Besiktas president Yildirim Dimiroren said in announcing Iverson's signing. "We at Besiktas believe that a player as Allen Iverson . . . will bring the championship title to the team."

The drop in talent around Iverson will be significant from what he was accustomed to in the NBA.

"He will play with no NBA-caliber players; most are at a major-college level," said an NBA personnel specialist who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The culture is very strict with practice, like our old training-camp mentality. He will be expected to be a super player and a hero; he'll have a bull's-eye on his jersey, and every defender will go at him."

Iverson lacked his signature explosiveness in last season's stint with the Sixers; he was unable to regularly penetrate the lane the way he once did, and he had to have a painful knee drained of fluid several times. Historically, practice has been an issue with him.

"They play a very physical guard game in Europe, and he will be taking a lot of shots to his body," the personnel specialist said. "He won't be in shape [right away], but will be expected to be great. I think that he will be in for a huge surprise, with the emotions of being viewed as this great NBA player; he is not any longer, but they will expect it . . . I look for him to struggle mightily in all aspects of this Turkish venture, factoring in his age, his lifestyle, his nonconforming mentality. And add to that one game a week and 5-6 days of practice."

Still, listen to Zorbey Canturk, a freshman swimmer at Drexel who is from Istanbul and has been in the United States for roughly 2 months.

"I was 10 years old, watching the Sixers in the playoffs," Canturk said. "Iverson is a hero to my generation, more popular than Kobe Bryant. He is the reason I watched. I just think it's funny that I come here and he goes to my hometown.

"I've been following the media at home, and he has been criticized for being too old, but to me he's a legend. In my head I'm hearing [an announcer yelling] 'Here comes Iverson for three!' To me, if he's 40 or 50, his arrival is huge."

Culture shock?

"He's going to find whatever food he wants - we've got Wendy's, Friday's, McDonald's, Burger King, whatever he wants," said Okur, in his ninth NBA season. "I think he's going to feel like I felt when I first got [to the United States] - different cultures on the floor, off the floor. But he's going to adjust, I believe, because the people are going to respect him and help him out, so I think he's going to be good, fit in well."

Former Sixers teammate Aaron McKie feels a certain sense of sadness in seeing Iverson pursuing his career overseas rather than in the NBA. But no NBA team tendered an offer this season, and Iverson clearly wanted to continue playing.

"The sadness is from the standpoint of what he brought to this game, how he changed the game," said McKie, now an assistant coach with the Sixers. "He scored so well [as a barely 6-2 guard], everybody started going with small lineups. He brought a hip-hop culture to basketball. Kids idolized him, wanted to be like him. His rightful place is in the NBA; he should be celebrated and retiring with a team here. He can [still] score 15-20 points with his eyes closed.

"The tough part is coming to grips with who you really are, understanding if your body is not allowing you to perform the way you want to perform. It's hard for any great player to walk away, because of ego. To make it this far, you have to have some kind of ego, an arrogance to know how well you do what you do. In his mind, I'm sure he feels he can still play at the same level he played when he first came in."

But if there is a tinge of sadness in seeing Iverson, unwanted in the league in which he grew up, going to Turkey to play, there is another positive aspect.

"He can bring excitement," said Eric Snow, a former teammate and now the Sixers analyst for Comcast SportsNet. "If he's well-conditioned, he can bring excitement to any team in any league. He can bring an audience. People love to watch him play."

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